New studies show the impact ultra-processed foods have on your health

Ultra-processed foods (UPF) have been in the spotlight recently for the negative impact they’re having on our health and well-being, from obesity to shortened lifespan, and new studies have just added more evidence to that claim – and even prompted calls for some products to be labelled as ‘addictive’.

An analysis of 281 studies from 36 different countries, published in the British Medical Journal, found that ‘ultra-processed food addiction’ was estimated to occur in 14% of adults and 12% of children. The researchers say that the way some people consume UPFs could ‘meet the criteria for diagnosis of substance use disorder’, claiming that junk food can be just as addictive as alcohol, tobacco or gambling and should be taxed and labelled to reflect this.

Experts previously warned that ultra-processed foods should be a ‘wake-up call’ to governments after two additional, eye-opening studies into the foods were presented at the annual meeting of the European Society of Cardiology in Amsterdam.

For the first study, researchers from the University of Sydney tracked 10,000 women for 15 years and found that those with the highest proportion of UPF in their diet were 39% more likely to develop high blood pressure than those who ate the least amount of UPF. They also found this wasn’t only down to the salt, fat and sugar added to these meals, as they adjusted for these ingredients, meaning it must be down to other processing factors.

The second study was a meta-analysis of research from the Fourth Military Medical University in Xi’an, China into more than 325,000 men and women. It found that those who ate the most UPF were 24% more likely to have cardiovascular events including heart attacks, strokes and angina.

And even those who ate small amounts of UPF were impacted, as increasing the amount of your daily calories that come from UPF by just 10% was associated with a 6% increased risk of heart disease.

What are ultra-processed foods?

This all sounds pretty scary, so let’s define the types of foods researchers are talking about. Ultra-processed foods are those which have gone through multiple processes during manufacturing. While most foods undergo a ‘process’ in the form of chopping, cooking, baking, straining or canning, for example, UPF are those which undergo much more treatment.

According to the British Nutrition Foundation, the term UPF is based on a food classification method called NOVA which means the products are made using industrial processing and often contain additives such as colours, flavours, emulsifiers or preservatives, as well as breaking down whole foods into substances including oils, sugars and starches.

Some examples of ultra-processed foods include:

  • Carbonated soft drinks
  • Sweets
  • Mass-produced packaged breads and buns, cookies, pastries, cakes and cake mixes
  • Margarine and spreads
  • Pre-prepared meat, cheese, pasta and pizza
  • Sweetened breakfast ‘cereals’ and fruit yoghurt
  • Sausages, burgers, hot dogs and other reconstituted meat products
  • Powdered and packaged ‘instant’ soups, noodles and desserts

Shockingly, it’s thought that UPFs make up more than 50% of the average diet in the UK.

Following this new research, Dr Chris van Tulleken, one of the world’s leading UPF experts and the author of the bestselling book Ultra Processed People, told The Guardian: “The findings of these new papers are entirely consistent with a large and growing body of work showing that increasing consumption of UPF is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

“Much of it will be familiar as ‘junk food’, but there’s plenty of organic, free-range, ‘ethical’ UPF which might be sold as healthy, nutritious, environmentally friendly or useful for weight loss. Almost every food that comes with a health claim on the packet is UPF.

“There is now significant evidence that these products inflame the gut, disrupt appetite regulation, alter hormone levels and cause myriad other effects which likely increase the risk of cardiovascular and other disease much in the same way that smoking does.”

How to tell UPF from processed foods?

If most food is processed, it’s hard to tell the good from the UPF. According to the BNF: ‘industrial breads made only from wheat flour, water, salt and yeast are processed foods, while those whose lists of ingredients also include emulsifiers or colours are ultra-processed. Plain steel-cut oats, plain corn flakes and shredded wheat are minimally processed foods, while the same foods are processed when they also contain sugar, and ultra-processed if they also contain flavours or colours.’

In short, it’s a minefield. That’s why the researchers from the latest studies are calling for governments to act in order for it to make healthy food choices easier for individuals. Until then, the advice for choosing the best foods for you remains the same – try to eat whole foods where you can, opt for home-cooked meals rather than pre-packaged food, and try not to stress if you occasionally eat something packaged or processed.

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